Geeky Cinephile Musings…
I don't pontificate, I blather.

Thoroughly Modern Fitzgerald

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, I present to you…The Great Gatsby, as seen through the huge, ever-observant eyes of Baz Luhrmann.


Let’s start with this caveat: I really, really, REALLY, REALLY like Baz Luhrmann. Really.  I own the box set “The Red Curtain Trilogy,” which contains not only Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge, but also a kick-ass, staggeringly-in-depth, documentary on the Luhrmann and Martin aesthetic. (That would be Martin, as in Catherine Martin, his wife and genius production designer.) So…I could be biased. Just a tad…But as a film blogger, I feel it is my DUTY to be objective in my review of the Baz-man’s newest creation, The Great Gatsby. Which is why I, unfortunately, have to say…


Okay, so I wasn’t THAT excited. You can take off those last three exclamation marks. Wait, add one back. There.

I have long adored the book. Fitzgerald’s style of writing appealed to me even at the age of 10–the plaintive voice of the narrator, so solid and without frippery–the very antithesis of the period Fitzgerald is describing.  The simplicity of the text belies the menace of the roaring twenties. Nowadays, I feel we tend to visualize the twenties as this kind of innocent, lah-di-dah era where bubbly flowed, people did the Charleston, and (Gasp! Scandal!) wore sack dresses!! But in fact, the twenties were quite edgy and dangerous in ways that we might sometimes forget.  This was a period not far removed from the Wild West, where gangsters gunned down each other and bystanders in the streets, police were as corrupt as the criminals they were presumably punishing, and slimy, back-alley dealings were the norm.  And Fitzgerald’s story, too, in recent times, has become a bit antiquated and toothless, lacking in immediacy…sigh…perception is everything, folks. We must remember that, at that time, this novel was utterly modern and threatening. It was not a tinkling, sweet story–it was a scathing and jaded commentary on society.  Imagine something more akin to Bill Hicks.

This is where Baz Luhrmann comes in. This is the man determined (to paraphrase Stephen Colbert) to make your homework come RIGHT out at you!

So let’s go! Back in time, to the aftermath of the first world war, where women wore feathers in their hair, prohibition was on, and Jay-Z played on the Victrola…whoa, whoa, wait, hold on.

Jay Z??

Yes. Jay Z.

But WHY, you ask? Isn’t that just silly, a gimmick to get in younger audiences?

I’ll tell you, thank you for asking.

We all know that Baz Luhrmann did a remake of Romeo and Juliet (Oh wait, Romeo + Juliet) in the 90’s with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (and my secret*shhhh* crush, Paul Rudd). He brought Shakespeare into the 20th century by situating it in contemporary times and giving it a Radiohead-dominated soundtrack. And I thought that effort was admirable.  I do not love this film. Sorry! I like it, but I do not love it. And I was, quite frankly, thinking The Great Gatsby might be another similar attempt.

But before I went to the screening, I read an article in The Huffington Post, where Luhrmann defends his daring choices.  His answers mightily impressed me. Baz Luhrmann’s mission with this film was to take Fitzgerald, a thoroughly modern man, with a thoroughly modern story, and show us jaded, 21st century folks just how treacherous Fitzgerald’s world was.

So let’s talk about Jay-Z on the soundtrack.
“He (Fitzgerald) took African-American street music, jazz, and he put it front and center in the novel,” Luhrmann said. “He did that because he wanted the book to feel immediate and dangerous.” But the jazz of the 1920’s has long since matured into something “classical and quaint.”

Sound familiar? 😉

And what music will feel dangerous and modern to your average Joe Schmo from middle America?

You got it. Rap.
And it works. It really does. I was able to romantically lose myself in the time period.  The soundtrack only excited me—it didn’t bring me out of that world one bit.

Next we have the choice to put it in 3D. Now this one—I’m a bit less exuberant about. Yes, I enjoyed it being in 3D, but it didn’t feel necessary to me while watching it. However! What is truly intriguing is the fact that Luhrmann picked 3D as yet another way to modernize this film.  He feels that Fitzgerald would’ve embraced the idea as well.  You gotta admire this guy—no stone is left unturned. Which brings me to my third point.

Luhrmann chooses to make Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) into a manifestation of Fitzgerald himself. There are striking similarities between the two, and Luhrmann & Martin both took great pains to highlight those similarities. They conducted TONS of research to make this film. Now, I am a Virgo. I can, and will, research anything.  I get all hot and bothered at just the mere MENTION of someone making very specific choices in their art because of the research they took the time to do beforehand. Ultimately, no amount of research will trump tone and emotion for me, but still—it’s imperative that there is a clear intention behind decisions, and this duo delivers that in spades. Baz and Catherine pored over countless biographies of Fitzgerald, read letters between he and Zelda (Fitzgerald’s wife, who was institutionalized for severe depression), and different drafts of the novel. Absolutely NO decision in the entire film was made flippantly, including the one to put Nick Carraway in an insane asylum.

Oh no, I’ve told too much!

Switching gears a bit, I’d like to compare the 1974 version with this one, as we’re all likely to do. When I exited the theater with my husband and friend, Heather, it came to me that there were several instances in the Redford version that have never made sense to me.  Although I understood what was happening in those moments because I’m familiar with the book, I’ve always written these scenes off as being a disconnect between myself and the mannerisms of the twenties. But seeing DiCaprio and Mulligan tackle these same scenes, I was shocked by the realization that…gulp…their acting was far superior. One biggie is the scene where Daisy is seeing Gatsby’s home for the first time, and during a tour of his bedroom, he begins to pull his shirts out of his closet and throw them around.  As Redford plays it, it comes off a bit stilted and queer–he cannot quite let himself go in the moment. DiCaprio nailed that scene much better, letting his exuberance at showing off his home build and build until he’s running around like the boy in love that Gatsby is, giggling and tossing his shirts down from a balcony. Mulligan, too, lets her happiness bubble up and over, jumping around on his bed, but then she begins gasping for breath, collapses, and finally begins crying under the weight of the…beautiful shirts. I only WISH they had NOT picked that moment to have Carraway’s voiceover say what is already plainly in front of us—that Daisy cannot articulate the pain and loss of those five years. That is obvious. And bravo to those two actors in that scene.

I know there will continue to be naysayers, and I understand where they’re coming from. My own husband said something about not liking the way the secondary characters (like Klipspringer, played by Brendon Maclean) in this film were “too…Baz Luhrmann-y,” and, you know? I honestly understand what he means. There is certainly a zany quality to Luhrmann’s films that threatens to overshadow how very methodical and exacting he really is.

But…me? I love looking at the rich texture of the red curtain, and I love taking a peek at the well-oiled mechanisms behind it as well.

3 Responses to “Thoroughly Modern Fitzgerald”

  1. Glad that somebody (you) liked it. Personally, I see the name Baz attached to a project and I run the other direction. Hell, I’d watch a Rob Schneider marathon before seeing anything behind Baz’s red curtain.

    Also, even though your opinion of the film is a positive one – as well as a wrong one, I might add (my opinion is always the right one) – you still have a writing style that I always look forward to. Keep up the great posts.

  2. OOooooooh, I cannot help it–I must ask!! What do you find so repulsive about the Baz-ster? It’s the “Baz-zaniness,” isn’t it? I find that, overwhelmingly, while working in the video store, more women gravitated to Luhrmann films than men, who usually looked uncomfortable and shifted from leg to leg when I told them how awesome Moulin Rouge is. 🙂

  3. I’m reluctant to admit it, but it seems you hit the nail on the head. No Baz for me.

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